Entertainment » Movies

Tab Hunter Confidential

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Oct 8, 2015
Tab Hunter Confidential

According to the end credits, the Jeffrey Schwarz-produced/directed/edited documentary "Tab Hunter Confidential" is "based on" the 2006 memoir Hunter wrote with film historian Eddie Muller (who also appears in the film).

This is certainly true in that both book and documentary are based on Hunter's life story, delivered the way Hunter seems to want it delivered. In a way, this film is more like a companion piece to the book -- or, if you like, an illustrated edition of the memoir, if the moving picture can be thought of as an illustration. Whatever. The bottom line is, the film is riveting, and Hunter -- who turns 84 this year -- is a vibrant, lively presence, discussing his career and his life with what seems to be perfect candor but, at the same time, always keeping things within the boundaries of good old-fashioned propriety.

Hunter shares how he was shy as a child, the younger of two children reared by a single mother, Gertrude Gelien, who changed her name (and the surnames of her sons) after divorcing Hunter's abusive father. Before he became Tab Hunter, the cinema heartthrob was Arthur Gelien; he had a hard time at school, feeling like many gay kids still feel today: Different, alienated, afraid. At the same time, his good looks made him the center of female attention. Hunter left school at the age of 15 and enlisted in the Coast Guard. Then he took on various jobs in Los Angeles, including a job at a stable -- which is where he met an actor, Dick Clayton, who inspired the young man to pursue a film career. Agent Henry Wilson (also Rock Hudson's agent -- a point that plays a significant role in Hunter's life story) insisted that the young Gelien take a sexier-sounding stage name, and Tab Hunter was born.

This was during the studio era, when big movie makers like MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. not only created new names for their stars, but forged entire personae. In Hunter's case, Warner Bros. encouraged the illusion that the rising star was romantically linked to co-stars like Natalie Wood. His true sexuality was beside the point; indeed, as Hunter notes, "Jack Warner and I never discussed my sexuality whatsoever." As long as Hunter made the studio money, the boss didn't care.

After Hunter left Wilson and sought agency representation elsewhere, Wilson sacrificed Hunter to a gossip magazine to save Rock Hudson from exposure as gay. The dirt, such as it was, had to do with an arrest: Hunter had been at a cocktail party attended by a number of gay men when he was scooped up in a police raid and charged with "disorderly conduct." Warner defended Hunter in a blunt, but effective, manner: He declared, "Today's headlines, tomorrow's toilet paper."

Hunter's career was damaged not by persistent rumors that he was gay, but by his own need to escape what he felt was a restrictive work situation. After he bought out his contract with Warner Bros., his career quickly faded. Hunter scraped by, doing dinner theater; eventually, in the 1980s, his career got a second wind when he starred in the John Waters film "Polyester," opposite Divine.

The documentary dives deep beneath the resume, with hunter discussing his relationships with Tony Perkins, figure skater Ronnie Robertson, and -- as his career revived, and at age 53 -- the then-23-year-old Allan Glaser, his longtime life partner and a producer on the documentary.

We also learn about Hunter's struggle to reconcile his faith and his sexuality (a deeply painful struggle made all the more so by hostile clergy), and learn about his other talents -- such as the No. 1 single he recorded in 1957 for Dot Records, "Young Love," and the fallout that generated: Dot Records being owned by Paramount, Jack Warner not only forbade Hunter to record with that label again, but also launched the Warner Bros. record label in order to accommodate hunter's singing career. Moreover, Hunter has been a lifelong athlete: A competitive figure skater in his youth, and an accomplished horseman later.

A man of many talents with a life and career characterized by reversals and recoveries, Hunter is an inspiration: A gay man who not only survived the highly homophobic mid-twentieth century in America, but who also found a way to thrive.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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